David Pichaske Talks About Poetry, Culture and His Insightful Dylan Study: Song of the North Country
And an unexpected perspective on the American Dream.
One of the presenters in our John Bushey Lecture Series during the 2018 Duluth Dylan Fest was poet/professor David Pichaske, author of several books related to the formative music of contemporary culture. In advance of the weeklong event I was able to reach out to David, who shared his thoughts on poetry, culture and Dylan.
EN: What was your “wake up call” that the music of the Sixties was about more than just moving your feet, but also moving minds?
David Pichaske: I grew up playing Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Lutheran hymns on the piano and organ, not at all interested in Bandstand or/and Tin Pan Alley. They were schlock. I did discover KAAY Little Rock on my bedroom radio, thereby picking up R&B. I share this experience with Dylan and several other people. I did not, however, form a band or play Little Richard in Springfield High School auditorium. But my freshman roommate at Wittenberg University had a whole collection of R&B 45s, which I taped while he was out partying. This is fall 1961.
KAAY and those records taught me that some singers had more to say about life than “I love you, Peggy Sue,” and “How Much Is that Doggie in the Window?” Little Richard and Chuck Berry were my men, and songs like “Yakety Yak,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” and “Too Much Monkey Business.”
Gradually I uncovered spirituals and blues, and by graduate school (1965–1969) I had discovered the revival of traditional folk music, the new songs of political engagement, and those songs of general cultural critique (so like mid-fifties rock-’n’-roll) which mark the mid- to later sixties.
My own engagement in civil rights (my 1962 fraternity brothers at Phi Mu Delta included one guy from Chinese, one Korean, and two blacks, which is pretty progressive for that time), anti-war protest, and general off-the-system disruptiveness took me and my generation to the singers and the songs. For my generation, music was the dominant mode of cultural statement: forget TV, school textbooks, and magazines: we had record players, FM radio (which played music most top-forty AM stations would not play) and reel-to-reel tape recorders. This was our private world, as social media are the private world of today’s youth. And it was a world of sound and words. The tip-off is the song lyrics printed on the jackets of 33 1/3 LPs: we were all paying attention to the words.
As a teaching assistant at Ohio University in the late sixties, I was teaching song lyrics in my poetry class. Dylan, the Beatles, the Doors, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon and Phil Ochs were most important to me. In the fall of 1970 I wrote one letter to one editor at The Free Press proposing a poetry textbook with poems and song lyrics. His answer was a contract and a check for half my advance. Beowulf to Beatles: Approaches to Poetry was published in spring 1972; Beowulf to Beatles and Beyond was published in 1981. They made me a lot of money. In between I wrote my story of America in the sixties, A Generation in Motion.
EN: What were the key events that led you to pursue a writing career?
DP: I was publishing poems in my grade school magazine, and in my college literary journal, and in middle-range poetry journals (but not Poetry magazine) when I started college teaching in the early seventies. Most of us start with poetry, I guess, and then we expand to fiction, and prose scholarly and not-so-scholarly.
College professors published stuff — that was the assumption when I started, although today college professors have become party apparatchiks who just go to committee meetings and are “collegial.” In the poetry department, I got as far as the finals for Nation magazine’s “Discovery” competition for American poets in 1985, but not Poetry magazine.
In the prose department, I made The Atlantic monthly and the New York Times, but not Playboy or Sports Illustrated. The big moments were the Beowulf to Beatles anthology/textbooks (I snuck a couple of my own poems into those), the scholarly essays and books, and the trade books. Those books got me the job in Minnesota and, later, the fellowships to teach overseas.
My own poetry went on back burner when the editor of Spoon River Quarterly, in which I had published a few poems, asked if I wanted to take over the journal. I did, and with Illinois Arts Council grant funding turned it from a saddle-stapled to a perfect-bound quarterly. Since four 80-page issues of the Quarterly per year was a lot of work for something which evaporated quickly, I made every other issue of the Quarterly a collection of poems by a single poet. Those books would sell when magazine issues were dead timber. Unfortunately, those poets wrote better poetry than I did, so I became more a publisher-editor than a poet. The books got larger (so did the grants), and I expanded into prose. I pretty much represented the “downstate” Illinois literary scene.
I also attended the annual Midwest Book fairs in Minneapolis, and met some of the Minnesota publishers and distributors (Jim Perlman at Holy Cow!, folks with the Book Bus), but my move to Minnesota introduced me to a new whole community of important writers, close and distant. Carol Bly once told me that Southwest State had the best English department in the state, including the University of Minnesota. I was their colleague and their publisher.
As a scholar-professor, I wrote articles and essays about the writers I published: what the hell, if Pound and Eliot can do it, so can Pichaske and Mark Vinz. Five of the seven authors discussed in Rooted: Seven Midwest Writers of Place (Iowa University Press, 2006) are people I published. Sometimes I used these writers — and ideas culled from these writers — in my own poems and stories.
I also taught these writers in my rural literature classes (before Southwest dumped that program), and invited them to Marshall Festival Writers’ festivals. So the publishing, teaching, and writing all worked together. Lately I’ve done less publishing (on-line used book stores and the web have pretty much killed small press publishing) and more writing as I wrap up my life, but it’s been a good gig.
EN: You went to colleges in Ohio… what brought you to the North Country here in Minnesota? Has living in MN increased your appreciation for the who Dylan is and what he’s about?
DP: I was born in Buffalo, New York — west of the Appalachians — but I spent my high school years in Philadelphia, “Out East.” I think getting out was good for me: going back across the mountains — as getting out was good for Dylan. I fantasize our buses crossing paths as he headed to New York, and I headed to Springfield, Ohio, for my pre-college interview and visit. I think everyone must, as one of my freshmen women once put it (in front of the whole class), “get the fuck out of here.” But in a sense I was going back.
My first teaching job (1969–1980) was further west, in Illinois: downstate, Spoon River Country, a place that sometimes called itself “Forgottonia,” also the headquarters of Caterpillar Tractor. Sixties politics do not play well in Peoria, but I liked the western-ness of it all. I spent a lot of time in the countryside, publishing writers of the small town and countryside . . . and listening to County Bob play “Lay, Lady, lay.”
I argued in A Generation in Motion and my memoir Here I Stand that my generation as a whole split the city for the country somewhere around 1975. (Dylan was ahead of the pack, as usual.) My anthology Late Harvest (1992) was actually the idea of my New York editor: I wanted to write something on Phil Ochs; Ken Stuart said, “No, America is not interested in Ochs, it’s interested in the country; you know the country, do something with that.”
Well, politics trumps countryside, even if your professor is cranking out books, his own and others’, by the dozen, and in 1980 Bradley the University and I split. I think every English professor who had published a book left the school.
For a time I actually considered trying to make it as a writer/publisher. The press was grossing $50,000 a year, I was still receiving royalties on my own books, and I had writing projects and grant-funded projects all over the place. Now I am glad I did not go that way. Three of us from Bradley came to Minnesota, which I had visited previously and knew through Dylan.
One of my early writing projects here was to review the Minnesota places in Dylan’s songs for a UK Dylan magazine named Endless Road. (Guess what — at Red Wing there are walls of barbed wire and electric fences.) I wrote a few other pieces for other UK magazines as well, and the 1980s work really set up Song of the North Country, whose writing and publication was delayed at least two decades by my travels abroad.
EN: You’ve been invited to speak in parts of the world you probably never dreamed of trespassing back when you were young. How did your speaking engagements in Mongolia, Poland and Latvia come about and what did you strive to give? What did you bring back?
DP: As an epigraph to the “Going Global” chapter of my memoir I used a quote from Willa Cather: “One must know the world so well before one can know the parish.” I think that’s it: we explore the Other so that we can see what we are not, so we see the Self we are and be comfortable with it. Dylan said that once — if you try to be what you are not, you will fail. But you have to see that Other, that world, that non-self to understand the Self. I worked one summer in a German factory, but I got most of my time abroad as a result of U.S. government Fulbright lecturing fellowships in American Studies: Poland 1989–91, Latvia 1996–97, and Mongolia 2003.
Poland when I went there was just breaking away from the East Bloc, and Latvia when I was there in 1996 had just broken from the Soviet Union. The “reformed” Communist Party still ran Mongolia when I was there in 2003. I tried to give students there the pre-corporate-capitalist American Dream as embodied in literature, music, and my own self: individualism, engaged politics, a kind of self-sufficient pastoralism.
One of the more amusing moments came at a Polish conference on “The American Dream,” when a student asked, after three days of panels and papers, “You’ve been talking about this American Dream but you never defined it. Just what is the American Dream?”
We all hemmed and hawed: “Well, that’s very complicated, different things to different people, blah, blah, blah.” Then another student told us experts, “No, the American Dream is very simple: you’re driving down the highway at 200 km/hour with your arm around your girl and your tape player at full volume, throwing your beer cans out the window behind you.” Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan would probably agree.
At a later conference in Mongolia, I learned that America’s three gifts to the world are the interstate, McDonald’s, and rock-’n’-roll. I could not take them an interstate or a McDonald’s, but I did take them rock-’n’-roll.
I also learned that socialism can screw up a country and a people nearly as badly as capitalism. I learned that Bob Dylan and the Beatles and Leonard Cohen were heroes all over the world (their bootlegged cassette tapes sold for a dollar on the streets). I learned that our genes explain a lot about what we are (Poles are different from Latvians are different from Americans), and our landscape also explains a lot of what we are: city Poles get as edgy visiting our open Midwest as I get nervous visiting city Poland/Chicago/New York. Mongols, who now herd their yaks from the seats of motorcycles, love our amplitudes. I think Dylan still has his farm up there on the Crow River.
EN: What was your own biggest takeaway in writing your book Song of the North Country?
DP: In putting Dylan in the context of his North County roots, I was able to draw together two of my biggest interests: Minnesota/Midwest place and Bob Dylan. I could do this with politics, landscape, imagination, even language. The introduction to each chapter looks at the Midwest/Minnesota/Iron Range context; then I turn to Dylan.
The chapter on Dylan’s language turns out to be the chapter which most interests folks in the UK and abroad. I taught historical linguistics, back when Southwest thought the subject was important enough for literature and creative writing majors to study it, and I know that you can chart preferences/habits not only of pronunciation but also of vocabulary on a map, based on interviews with natives.
And underneath his many disguises, Dylan is bedrock Midwest, Minnesota, even Iron Range. He’s really here. The other thing I took away from that book, or more properly from reaction to the book, is the insistence of those who are not from here that no, Dylan’s politics, landscape, imagination, and language are all inventions not at all related to Minnesota. He’s not here. What’s the line from American Beauty? “Never underestimate the power of denial.”
Of David Pichaske’s book: “Informed by a wealth of historical, social, political and cultural background material about the Midwest, Song of the North Country is a major work about the roots of Dylan’s genius. It also casts a fresh and telling light on many Dylan songs, which often feel newly-minted in a series of illuminating readings. This is a serious work of Dylan scholarship and is not to be missed.” — The Bridge
Purchase a copy of Song of the North Country here at Amazon.
Meantime, life goes on all around you. Get into it.
Originally published at pioneerproductions.blogspot.com